Daylight on Iron Mountain

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Authors: David Wingrove
Tags: Science-Fiction, Fantasy
able to function without them. If Tsao Ch’un was the head, these were his hands, and looking from face to face, Jiang Lei found himself impressed by the strength and experience he saw in their eyes.
    As Li Peng withdrew, facing Tsao Ch’un all the while, his head bowed low. Li Chao Ch’in stepped forward, welcoming Jiang Lei formally to hishouse. As he did so, Tsao Ch’un looked on silently, his black, hawk-like eyes taking in everything.
    Tsao Ch’un was, as Jiang had observed before, a small man. He had the look of a street fighter; of a man who had long lived off his wits to survive. Only standing there, surrounded by seven of the most impressive men on the planet, he nonetheless dominated the room. Was somehow more alive than they.
    Intelligent as he was, Tsao Ch’un was also brutal, elemental,
visceral
. Where others might have been measured and calculating, Tsao Ch’un was direct. He trusted his instincts and did what others would not have dared to do. Hence his success. Only he was no administrator. Others could consolidate what he had won. And those ‘others’ were the Seven.
    The formal welcome complete, Li Chao Ch’in stepped aside. Only then did Tsao Ch’un step forward and, standing before Jiang Lei, put out his right hand with its great black iron ring – token of his power – resting below the thick knuckle of the forefinger.
    At once Jiang Lei knelt, bowing his head, and took the offered ring, kissing it in fealty.
    ‘Jiang Lei,’ Tsao Ch’un said warmly, taking his arm and steering him towards the map, as if they were old friends. ‘We have been debating all morning how best to go about the task. The new campaign, I mean, against the North Americans. Tsu here thinks we should bomb them flat, as we did the Middle East, then wait for the radiation to die down. But I’m an impatient man. I can’t wait a hundred years for things to cool off. That said, a straightforward invasion might prove costly. It might easily lose us ten million men.’
    Tsao Ch’un paused and smiled. ‘The question is, Jiang Lei, how would
you
go about it?’
    Two hours later, Jiang stepped back, away from the map, conscious that the mood in the room had changed.
    Surprised as he’d been by Tsao Ch’un’s request, he had done as he’d been asked and given his considered answer to all the questions thrown at him. As Jiang turned to Tsao Ch’un again, he saw how the great man looked about him, meeting the eyes of his advisors one by one, each giving him a single nod.
    ‘Then it is done,’ he said, looking to Jiang once more. ‘You, Jiang Lei, will organize and lead the campaign.’
    Jiang stared back at him, shocked. He had, in that instant, been promoted to marshal.
    He fell to his knees, touching his forehead to the floor before Tsao Ch’un. ‘But
Chieh Hsia
… I am not a soldier. I am but a humble poet.’
    ‘That may be so,’ Tsao Ch’un answered him, grinning now and enjoying Jiang’s surprise, ‘but you will have guidance in the task. I am giving you an advisor.’
    Jiang Lei looked up, puzzled. Tsao Ch’un was clearly not talking of the Seven.
    ‘Shepherd,’ Tsao Ch’un said, then laughed, his laughter taken up by the others. ‘You will go and see him, Jiang Lei. He is expecting you. But first you will stay here for a day or two. Li Chao Ch’in needs to brief you. And besides, there are things
I
wish to discuss…’
    Jiang bowed again, but he was shocked. A mere hour ago he had been but an unimportant general. One of hundreds in Tsao Ch’un’s service. Now he was confidant to the Son of Heaven and leader of a campaign to conquer the territories of the old American empire. And it had happened in an instant.
    ‘Forgive me,’ he said, conscious of the others listening, ‘but why me?’
    Later that evening, finally alone with Tsao Ch’un, he got his answer.
    ‘I have had my eye on you for some while, Jiang Lei,’ he said, handing Jiang a large glass of the finest French brandy. ‘I have

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